TV review: The Witness for the Prosecution, BBC One
An addictive and lavish adaptation of Agatha Christie's short story and play
Long gone are the days of Agatha Christie screen adaptations coming chockful of winsome characters, dodgy stereotypes and curious sleuths. After last festive-time's And Then There Were None (which at times looked to be going for the Game of Thrones crowd rather than The Times cryptic crossword buffs) comes The Witness for the Prosecution. This bleaker anti-Marple and non-Poirot approach (there's not a frilly jabot or twirly moustache to be spied anywhere) comes largely down to screenwriter Sarah Phelps who gave last year's tale of a seemingly unsolvable mystery a luscious claustrophobia.
While there was no safety net in that story of a detective on hand to save anyone from its merciless killer, this time around at least we have a capable solicitor in the form of John Mayhew. The downside is that it doesn't look as though he will even last the duration of the trial given his hacking cough and occasional spitting-up of blood. It's not the only appearance of the red stuff in episode one as plenty of it is strewn over the drama's murder victim and gets stuck onto the paws of probably the whitest cat ever to make it onto our small screens.
Alongside Phelps is director Julian Jarrold who splashes an effective browny-red palette over these proceedings, as he did with the first episode of the superlative Red Riding trilogy. And cast-wise, this is one of those to-die-for gatherings. Toby Jones plays the ailing and penniless brief whose homelife has become a tower of sadness; Kim Cattrall is the seductive society dame whose taste in men appears to be designed to shock and appal those around her; Andrea Riseborough once more superbly portrays a brooding melancholy as an Austrian singer and dancer who is made far from welcome in London's theatre-land; and Billy Howle plays the moody WWI survivor who becomes embroiled in what could well be a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Agatha Christie herself was less than enamoured with the ending she plumped for in the original short story, tinkering with it for a later stage incarnation. This perhaps gives Phelps the perfect motive to deliver her own grand finale. Whichever direction it goes in, the second episode is sure to be a lavishly addictive affair.
The Witness for the Prosecution is on BBC One, Mon 26 & Tue 27 Dec, 9pm.